Christmas week in our house was a blur of visitors coming and going — most of them flying in and out of Bradley International Airport in the Hartford, Conn. region. Although the weather there was relatively mild, Mother Nature wasn’t so kind to other parts of the country. A major storm system, dubbed “Winter Storm Goliath” by Accuweather, swept through Dallas and Chicago and snarled air travel from coast to coast.
Thousands of flights over the post-Christmas weekend were delayed or canceled, including my sister and brother-in-law’s flight to the Midwest on Monday, Dec. 28. The soonest that they could be rebooked out of Bradley, they were told, was Wednesday, Dec. 30.
Instead of waiting an extra two days, my brother-in-law, a seasoned business traveler, immediately looked for alternatives. They managed to reserve seats on a flight out of Providence, rented a car, drove to Rhode Island and got home pretty much as planned.
Travel experts say that type of flexibility is key in dealing with flight cancellations. When weather or other events threaten to ground flights, quick action can mean the difference between cooling your heels in an airport terminal or getting to your destination.
For starters, stay in the know and monitor the situation before you leave for the airport. The massive holiday storm system was big news, and many airlines started pre-emptively canceling flights.
Travelers monitoring their airlines’ websites saw alerts and advisories about which airports were affected and directions on how to rebook without penalty or change fee. Although you might have to wait awhile on hold to speak with an agent, it beats being stranded in a terminal.
Sign up for text or email alerts from your airline. You can also sign up for FlightAware Flight Tracker. The app sends notifications of cancellations, gate changes, delays and diversions. When you get information on a change, call your airline immediately.
The sooner you call, the most likely you are to get a seat on the next flight out. (Some airlines will automatically rebook you. Be sure the time and date work for your schedule — otherwise, call and let them know you’ll need other arrangements. If your flight has been canceled and rebooking options don’t work for you, you’re entitled to a refund.)
When you head to the airport, be sure to pack some patience (along with your phone charger and maybe a change of underwear).
If you do get stuck, try to keep your cool, says Zach Honig, editor-in-chief at the travel website, thepointsguy.com.
“Don’t just stand there in line; get out your phone and call your airline while you’re waiting,” Mr. Honig says. “You may have better luck with the 800-number than crowding the counter with everyone else.”
And like my brother-in-law, look for alternatives.
“It pays to think outside the box. Go to Google Fights (flights.google.com),” says Mr. Honig. “You put in your origin and destination and the site shows all flights with available seats. You may not be able to get out on your airline, but you could find a seat on another.”
If you do find alternative routes, on your airline or a different carrier, have flight numbers and times in hand to give to the counter agent.
“The faster they can plug in information, the better your chances of getting rebooked,” says Mr. Honig.
And remember, yelling at counter staff doesn’t help. If you’re not happy with the resolution offered, ask to speak with a supervisor.
If you’re going to be stuck for hours, you might want to trade an uncomfortable seat by the gate for a little pampering. The Lounge Buddy app lists airport lounges offering day passes (costs can range from $25 to $50), where you can enjoy snacks, drinks, Wi-Fi, comfortable chairs and even showers.
When there’s no other alternative to an overnight delay, don’t settle for sleeping on an airport floor. Gate agents often have vouchers for reduced rates at airport hotels and the Hotel Tonight app lists same-day deals for hotel rooms in more than 500 cities and lets you book from your phone.